MELBOURNE (Reuters) - U.S. military efforts to strengthen its presence in Asia are not aimed at countering China, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday, ahead of talks on deepening defense ties with regional ally Australia.
An Australian newspaper published a report saying Australia would grant the U.S. military expanded use of its bases, but a U.S. defense official cautioned that any decision on such a possibility was months away at least.
Gates said a strategic review of U.S. military posture would not include any new bases in Asia.
“As far as the posture review, we’re not looking at adding any bases or anything, any new bases in Asia. But (instead focuses on) really how do we enhance the relationships that we already have,” he told reporters before landing in Melbourne.
Gates will hold talks in Melbourne alongside U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has spent much of the past two weeks on a regional trip that has been dominated by U.S. concerns about Chinese assertiveness with its neighbors.
Washington and its Asia-Pacific allies have grown increasingly wary of China’s intentions as it spends heavily to modernize its military, sends its navy further afield and asserts sovereignty over the contested South China Sea.
Gates said the U.S. military was “looking at ways to strengthen and perhaps make more robust our presence in Asia.” But he stressed that the U.S. moves in the region, including its policy agenda in Australia, were not a response to actions by Beijing.
“No this isn’t about China at all,” Gates said, pointing to increased ties with countries in the region on shared interests such as counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and disaster relief.
“It’s more about our relationships with the rest of Asia than it is about China. We’ve really enhanced our engagement over the last 18 months or so.”
He pointed to his visit to Vietnam last month to attend a meeting of Asia-Pacific defense chiefs and to Clinton’s participation at an Asia-Pacific summit in Hanoi just over a week ago as examples of that engagement.
Analysts closely eyed regional friction with China at both events, particularly given a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyu islands, called Senkaku in Japanese.
U.S. officials point to Australia as among Washington’s closest military allies. Australia has fought alongside U.S. forces in every major conflict since World War One, including in Afghanistan, where it is the largest non-NATO contributor with about 1,550 soldiers.
U.S. foreign military sales to Australia also rose to $1.45 billion in 2010 from $162.5 million in 2001 and the U.S. Senate passed a defense trade agreement last month that could allow increased bilateral defense trade.
Gates said talks in Melbourne would include missile defense and cyber technologies, describing the agenda as “pretty ambitious.”
A U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said both sides would announce a “Space Situational Awareness Partnership Agreement,” given Australia’s unique geographic position for monitoring missile and satellite activity.
The official said the bilateral defense relationship had “a lot of room to grow.”
“There are a range of things that we would look at and consider, that would range from enhanced training, to the ability to operate more effectively out of certain locations of Australia,” the official said.
Asked whether the two countries could agree to greater use of existing bases in Australia, the official said, “That is absolutely one of the key things we are looking at and one of the more likely things, if we were to go down that route.”
Editing by Alex Richardson